What to Expect in First Year: An International Student’s Perspective

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Last year, I was in the King’s Building at Strand when my Welcome App beeped with a notification, informing me that the venue for ID card collection had been changed. It was now in “Bush House,” and my slot was in five minutes. Of course, being an international student, I didn’t know what a Bush House was.

Going into panic mode, I started fumbling for my phone in a frantic attempt to open Google maps. It told me that Bush House was, in fact, a building, and that it was a twelve-minute walk away. Flustered, I followed the map through Aldwych, tripping an embarrassing amount in the process and unsurprisingly arriving at the venue five minutes late.

Cut to me successfully collecting my ID card and exiting the building; I was feeling quite proud of myself for figuring things out, until I looked up and realised that the King’s building (twelve minutes away, according to Google) was directly in front of me. It should have been a three-minute walk at most.

Suffice it to say, London can be quite nerve-rackingly hard to navigate as an international student.

People keep to themselves, existing independently but in continuum. Google maps could be your best friend or worst enemy, depending on where you are (in my experience, worst enemy seems to be more fitting). The metro is called the tube, jaywalking is not a concept, and car honking is considered to be offensive. Your contactless (?) debit card works as your Oyster, and in some places, your Oyster works as ID.

Considering the fact that London is a city that often complains about ‘rain,’ there will barely ever be any actual rain. Instead, it will drizzle at what feels like an average of 20 hours a day, with drops so light and barely-there that it will make you wonder if it’s even worth pulling out your £10 umbrella. Spring will be cold, autumn will be warm, and the much-awaited snow of winter will be more of an icy slush – but you’ll love it anyway.

Meanwhile, at university, you’ll realise that Fresher’s Week – expected to be the golden time of your life – is more chaotic than anything you have ever, and probably will ever, witness. There will be noise. And sweat. Visualise thousands of students squished together, both physically and mentally, trying to find one (or all) of three things: friends that will become family, themselves, or their niche. During Fresher’s Fair, you will ricochet around society stalls like a tennis ball, being either charmed or rudely confronted by society representatives who will somehow convince you to sign up for the most obscure things (in my case, Kung Fu). You’ll be left in a daze, wondering if this is what university life is like and if it is then how will you survive?

Eventually, you’ll understand why students always complain about being broke. Budgeting is hard, and your rent itself will often exceed your carefully planned estimate. Don’t worry. You’ll learn to cope, and until then, student discounts will be omnipresent, cropping up in places as diverse as Pizza Express and Bella Italia to Ryman and Superdrug. Most importantly, you’ll find that despite your defiance, Tesco meal deals become your staple diet (which, believe me, you’ll have newfound appreciation for when it’s 10.30 p.m. and you’re starving at the Maughan).

Student “night-outs” will also come as a revelation. More often than not, they will mean drinking away your sorrows at Wetherspoons – which will become your second home – and will somehow always involve pitchers of snakebite, annoyed security guards and sticky crowds chanting Mr. Brightside at an unnecessarily loud volume. Every Wednesday at Guy’s Bar, you will have the opportunity to witness KCL students in their most raw and primal form: Sports Night, which will either be the bane or boon of your existence (there is no in between).

Your classes will most likely be in different buildings, and if you’re particularly unlucky, on different campuses. The first academic week will, as a result, be utter chaos. Adding onto the fact that you’ll be running around like a headless chicken, with a cup of coffee (or, more preferably, tea) in your hand while struggling to understand King’s timetabling, lectures won’t be what you expect. Lecture theatres will hold as many as a hundred people and lecturers will rarely know your name. Don’t bother trying to change that. Instead, focus on yourself: your mental health and well-being, your grades and your satisfaction.

Another cultural shock will arrive in the form of the British grading system. It’s common for first-years to get a 2:1 on an essay, only to be heard panicking because how do I tell my mother that I got a 65 percent? It’s important to understand that the marking system is not the same as it is back home; your grades are good, and even if they aren’t, there is plenty of time to learn. First year doesn’t matter as much academically. It gives you a lot of room for failure and subsequently, for improvement.

In short, it isn’t going to be all rosy, like many of us expect it to be – but then again, life never really is. First year is about finding yourself and reaching a place where you feel comfortable and at peace. It will be a tumultuous experience, one that you may love or hate (keep in mind that no two people share the same experience). Make the most of it, because no matter how it turns out, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

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